The federal government isn’t looking to punish Canadians who made “honest mistakes” claiming the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) when they shouldn’t have, but wants to go after the “small number of fraudsters” who deliberately tried to game the system, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
At his daily press briefing in Ottawa Tuesday, Trudeau said parties are negotiating over proposed legislation that would punish those who “knowingly and wrongfully” claimed the $2,000-per-month CERB meant to support Canadians who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to leaks to media outlets, including The Globe and Mail and CTV News, the draft legislation proposes fines of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail for those who fraudulently claimed benefits, including deliberately misreporting their income to receive money they weren’t eligible to receive.
Watch: Ottawa won’t rule out extending CERB program
The bill, which was shared with opposition parties over the weekend, is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons Wednesday. Federal New Democrats have already withdrawn their support, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh warning the measures will hurt the very people who most need help right now.
Trudeau told reporters the CERB was put together in such a way that the money would quickly flow to Canadians at a time of crisis, without the red tape of what he called complicated background checks and “verifications upfront.” The most recent federal figures show 8.41 million people have applied for the CERB, with $43.51 billion in payments made as of June 4.
“We always knew from the beginning that there would be mistakes and, indeed, that there would be a small number of fraudsters who would try to take advantage of it,” he said.
Trudeau said Canadians who made errors with benefits claims — for instance, those who received both the CERB and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy — will have to pay back the money they shouldn’t have received in the first place. No harm, no foul, he said.
But, he said, the measures were geared to the “few criminals who will deliberately try to take advantage of a moment of solidarity, a moment where we’re in crisis and trying to help each other out, by deliberately... defrauding the system.”
While the proposals would appear to respond to concerns Conservatives raised about possible CERB fraud at a time when billions in taxpayers’ dollars are flying out the door, Trudeau denied a shift in his approach. The prime minister said his government has been saying for weeks it would seek to “clean up” honest errors and penalize those who deliberately abused the program.
“We’re making sure that we do have the tools. Hopefully, we will not have to use them very much at all because the vast majority of people are of good faith and just trying to support their families and trying to do the right things to get us all through this,” he said. “But we do need the tools to go after those who deliberately choose to take advantage of people and systems’ vulnerability in a time of crisis.”
At a separate press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos declined to outline how, exactly, the government will identify CERB fraudsters. He said staffers at Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency are “very well aware of how to track fraud and correct it.”
Dulcos also said that, “in urgent circumstances,” honest people make mistakes. He suggested that, in April, many Canadians, who were fearful they would not get any assistance, doubled-dipped when applying for federal assistance.
“Tens of thousands of Canadians made two requests,” he said, “but these are honest mistakes.” There are also people who later found out that, due to their personal circumstances, they should haven’t applied for one program or another, Duclos told reporters.
“The proportion of people who made honest mistakes is modest, but it is still a proportion that is important,” he said.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Singh called the approach signalled in the Liberal bill “wholly irresponsible” and wrong-headed, especially at a moment when people are gripped with how marginalized groups are already treated in the criminal justice system.
Singh said it was “hypocritical” for Trudeau to take a knee at an anti-racism rally in Ottawa while his government was drafting legislation “to punish people who need help” and are feeling desperate.
“The prime minister admitted that the people who are most impacted by COVID-19 are racialized people,” he said.
Not the right ‘path,’ NDP leader says
The NDP leader said the tax system should be used to recover funds rather than new criminal penalties that will end up hurting poor and racialized Canadians.
“It’s not right to go down a path of punishing some people because they needed help,” he said.
Singh also noted that all parties supported a motion in April saying Canadians shouldn’t be unduly penalized if they applied for benefits in good faith. Now, he said, Liberals are “effectively opening up the floodgates to retroactively charging people just for applying.”
Trudeau said, in French, Tuesday that he understands Singh’s concerns, but reiterated that is not at all the intent of the bill.
Though the NDP is calling for the CERB to be extended even as provinces start to reopen their economies, Trudeau again signalled his government is looking to wind down the program and move more Canadians to the wage subsidy. The program covers 75 per cent of worker pay, up to $847 a week, to try to help employers keep workers on the job.
With roughly three million people unemployed, “it is going to be a while before we get enough jobs to consider that things are back to normal,” Trudeau said.
“So, we’re looking very carefully at how we will move forward with the package of measures that we’ve put forward in a way that makes sense to both encourage people to get back to work, encourage companies to get going again, while at the same time, supporting and protecting those who cannot work because of the pandemic.”
Last week, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told HuffPost Canada the government would likely make a decision on extending the CERB in July, after the first wave of applicants comes to the end of their benefits.
With files from Althia Raj and The Canadian Press